Sunday, March 27, 2011


Because Peace Corps is now 50 years old, there is a worldwide initiative to inform more people about Peace Corps, maybe you have noticed.  I had my project this week, and Darlene had hers last week.  

One part of my Peace Corps service that I haven’t really gotten used to is the inconsistency of business.  March was one of my busiest months out of my entire time here, but that is a really good thing, especially because I feel the pressure of making sure that I am productive with not much time left.  The first half of the month was crazy busy with planning for International Women’s Day and the actual workshop.  Then the second half was busy planning for my kickball game.  In between these two events was a lot of teaching (about 6 hours every day), so needless to say, this month absolutely flew by.  April is just around the corner, which is the time for us to take a break, have a vacation and enjoy Cambodia without the pressure of teaching English every day.  Before I get into that, I want to tell you about my kickball game.

You may or may not know that I was an athlete in America and sports have been a really big part of my life.  Most of my close friends are former teammates or other athletes that I met in college.  I wanted to do an athletic event in Cambodia, but up until now, there has never really been the opportunity.  There were times when I forced a project onto people and it didn’t go over well, because, quite frankly, I was the only interested in the event.  I was careful not to do this because I didn’t want to turn people off to sports.  In Cambodia, there are sports teams, but there are a few teachers at my school who are paid PE teachers and coaches, so that meant that I couldn’t start a soccer, volleyball or basketball team because there were people assigned to doing that already.  When Peace Corps sent us information about the chance to create a community project to celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, I thought about how much fun a sports activity would be.  I had also just been introduced to an Ngo school in Battambang, located at the train station.  The train station hasn’t been used for many years, but there is a fairly large community of squatters living there.  It was very clear initially that these are children that are extremely vulnerable to trafficking, gang activity (yes, there are gangs in Cambodia), substance and drug abuse, etc.  There aren’t too many employed villagers and there is always a group of men gambling and drinking outside of the school.  The school does a great job of creating education and youth development programs, but I thought that a community event day would be a really fun way to celebrate the 50th anniversary.  We collected the children from the community and had two practices to teach them how to play.  I chose kickball for two reasons- because a lot of kids can play and because sports are usually set aside for boys, so playing soccer may have made the girls feel uncomfortable.  But, it was confusing for them because kickball is basically soccer combined with baseball, and they don’t know baseball.  Thankfully I had my 9 loyal youth leaders from my grade 12 English club to help coach and prepare.  I also asked my former coach from Seton Hall softball, Coach Vander May, if he could donate t-shirts, which he sent about a month before (thanks again Coach!) and Darlene got 20 UTexas t-shirts (she was a dean at UTexas before joining Peace Corps).  We taped numbers to the back and made the event UTexas vs. Seton Hall. 

After all the arrangements, Peace Corps informed me that the Embassy would be coming with a film crew to document the event which will be included in a piece for Khmer TV on Peace Corps Cambodia.  This actually really helped me because I asked one woman who has a store right near the school and center of the village if she could tell everyone that CTN (the Khmer equivalent of NBC) would be there to film.  She must have done just that because when we showed up at 7am, there were already some kids ready to go.  We made teams and handed out t-shirts.  Some students from Texas sent posters and my grade 12 students made posters in Khmer, so we had a photo shoot before the Embassy arrived.  Once the Embassy came, we stretched, which is really funny and started to play.  Because we had practiced, the game wasn’t nearly as rag-tag as I thought that it was going to be.  We stationed one of my grade 12 students at each base to help the children remember to run to the next base, so after a child kicked the ball, they ran to “sister Samphoa” who reminded them to run to second/ “brother Sophoe” and then to third or “sister Nara”.  Darlene was all-time pitcher for Texas and I was all-time pitcher for Seton Hall.  We played pitcher’s hand, which means that if the pitcher has the ball before the kicker gets to first, they are out.  Seton Hall was in the field first, and it was clear very quickly that Texas was STACKED!  I divided the teams up based on age/ height, but I clearly didn’t do a good job, because Seton Hall had all the babies and Texas had all of the older kids.  The first inning went something like this- Texas scored 5 runs and Seton Hall had one hit and didn’t score any runs.  Texas was clearly having more fun and my kids were a little bummed, but we turned it around in the second inning and scored more runs.  We rigged it a little so that Texas didn’t kill us too badly and that helped, but we were able to turn the sadness around and it was a lot of fun.  Some kids were able to kick the ball really far and we had a few home-runs.  But every time a run was scored, everyone cheered and the kids were having a lot of fun.  The end result was 19 for Texas and 9 for Seton Hall.  Although I am naturally very competitive, the point was not the score; the kids had so much fun that it really didn’t matter.  Whenever we scored a run, we all high-fived each other, jumped up and down and celebrated.  It was a fairly short game, but it was a blast.  We played for probably 45 minutes then took pictures and drank some water. 

While we were playing, my friend Meghan led the Bozo Bucket section for the babies who were too little to play.  I think Bozo Buckets may be only a Chicago thing, but we set up three buckets filled with candy and the children threw a ball at a basket and if they made it, they got a piece of candy and if they made all three, they got a cookie.  It kept them occupied and happy. 

Many parents and older siblings came to watch the game, too.  So at one time, we had about 50 kids playing in the kickball game, 50 kids playing Bozo Buckets and about 20 parents watching the game.  The goal of having a community event was a success because we had a lot of people there, and they all seemed to enjoy it.  The parents held the signs for a while and got into the game. 

My description doesn’t do it justice and hopefully the pictures help, but I want to get the video to post, because it sounds really haphazard, which it was, but it was really typical of Cambodian kids, especially homeless ones.

During the game I was pulled to the side and interviewed, in Khmer.  I was really nervous about this for a week, and then the night before the big game, I reminded myself that I make myself look like an idiot every single day.  That’s not me being too hard on myself, it’s a fact.  Every volunteer feels that way.  I mean, look at the situation- I’m an American female that lives in Cambodia and tries my best to learn as much as possible and help where I can, of course I am going to look dumb every now and then.  My interview wasn’t good, but I said the things that I meant- that I love Cambodia, playing with children, learning about Cambodia is important to me, so on and so forth.  We will see how the video turns out.  We are having a party at the Embassy where they play the video on May 18th, so I’ll let you know then….

It’s a weird feeling because this may be the last big project that I do here.  I want to find my grade 12 students scholarships, but that is not really a project but rather a personal thing that I want to do.  I will finish out my Life Skills Club (basically a class where I teach about skills such as goal-setting, professional skills, how to write a resume/ cover letter, etc), American Culture class, my formal classes and English Clubs, but to be honest, I shouldn’t be starting new projects.  I have about 16 weeks left and that’s how long it takes sometimes to start new projects, so I will see the projects that I have started out and maybe do one more health workshop, but my time is almost over.

Having said that, I am really happy that an athletic activity was one of my last because sports mean a lot to me.  I’ve always thought that sports are not just about how to hit a curveball or hitting a three pointer, but rather the deep rooted lessons.  Those lessons are incredibly important to these children who are literally fighting for their lives at the age of 5 and they have to look out for themselves, because no one else will.  I saw two of the little kids who played in the games at the market begging for money then later that same down begging for money outside of a restaurant.  Sports, on the other hand, require discipline and working with others for a common goal.  I believe that many kids end up in a bad situation because they are trying to look out for themselves (join a gang for protection and possibly business reasons), but how many successful athletes do you know personally who are selfish?  It doesn’t work that way- the teammates that I had that looked out for themselves never reached their full potential.  Another important lesson from sports is dedication- these kids can’t really go to school, so their schedules are really inconsistent.  They are also really bored and have too much free time.  Playing a sport fills their time with something that is not harmful to them and promotes exercise, teamwork and hard work.  They have a lot of bad influences around them and around Battambang, these kids are known as being the toughest crowd around.  I plan on playing kickball with them when I can because there is always a group of kids hanging around and positive activities are hard to come by in that community.

Up next is my host sister’s wedding on April 8-9.  I went to the market with my host mom to buy fabric for a new dress.  I feel awful because they were banking on me to invite all of my Peace Corps friends to the wedding, but all of them will be out of the country because April is our free month to travel because of Khmer New Year.  I think I will be flying solo for that one.  But the preparation is fun so far and really similar to my real sister’s wedding.  I will have a detailed report on that after the fact. 

The day after her wedding ends, I will be taking the bus into PP to meet one of my closest friends, Catte, and her boyfriend.  We will be traveling around Cambodia for a week then going to Phuket and Bangkok, Thailand.  I am really looking forward to showing them Cambodia because I think that I have insight, relationships and connections that most tourists don’t have and I’m really excited to show off Cambodia to them.  There is so much to learn and I know that they are both really interested in learning about the Cambodia that you can’t really get from a travel book or tour.  Thailand will be incredible because although I love Cambodia, I need a break.  I have been in Cambodia for a year now without leaving, which is actually a long time and I’m looking forward to seeing Thailand.  When I come back to Cambodia, it will be the last week in April and phasing out will really start.  It’s a strange feeling because my students and host family are already talking about me going home.  The best to describe it is simply being torn.  I am excited to see my family and friends, but I am so incredibly san about leaving Cambodia.  I am thankful for the last few months though, because I plan on spending them with my host family, students and friends. 

Hope all is well back home! 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

International Women's Day

Because I never miss a cute Chun Liap moment. 
I’m not a big crier.  That’s not to say that I never cry; I do.  It’s just not for the usual things- a commercial will make me tear up but not a sprained ankle.  My teammates used to cry over a bad game, hitting slump, being embarrassed in front of the team, etc.  I never used to cry at that stuff, I would just get mad.  Likewise, when something bad happens here, I don’t cry, I get PISSED.  That may be a character flaw, but it is something that I have noticed about myself.  My friends here cry over many things but I have cried a grand total of 6 times, which in Peace Corps terms is a dry well.  The first time was when I found out that my best friend’s mother passed away, then when I thought a student had leprosy, when my parents were stuck in San Francisco on their way to visit me and their trip was delayed by 3 days, when my host nephew died, when my friend Jessica went back to America and at my International Women’s Day event.  Now, as you can see, I am a rather emotional person when it comes to others.  I don’t think that I am tough or anything, I just don’t cry when I am upset about my own situation, it is usually because I am upset for someone else.  This last one was an eye-opener and to explain, I want to describe the entirety of my International Women’s Day program.

As you probably read before, I was faced with a little sexism in class when my co-teacher made fun of one of my students for entering her essay into the pool to be invited to the program.  After he did that, I chose to bring all 13 girls, even though we were only allowed 10.  I didn’t care because there was clearly a need. 

The way that I see it, before the program, I saw two important victories for women’s rights in Cambodia.  First, was when the university males came forward and said that they want to be incorporated into the women’s day event because women’s rights has an impact on their lives.  The second was when I gave the invitations to the 13 girls that I brought.  Because I said that I would only be able to take 6 grade 10 students and 9 submitted essays, they were nervous.  But when they all received their invitations and showed them off to their friends and classmates, I knew that they felt a little more confidence in themselves. 

The weeks leading up to the event were crazy.  Between getting all of the girls names, training the group leaders, creating and translating documents- we had our hands full.  But all the running around and countless hours of preparation were worth it when the girls arrived.  Philip, another volunteer, was in charge of the boys.  He was incredible and everything ran so smoothly because he told them exactly what to do, with the focus on the girls.  When the students arrived, they went into their small groups (they were all divided on purpose to meet girls from other schools and districts) and immediately made new friends.  Everyone arrived on time and we dove right in.  We started off with a little story called “The World Upside Down” which told of a world where girls were encouraged to stay in school and boys were taught to be shy and gentle.  The boys were taught to be quiet and learn how to cook, clean and care for women from their fathers.  The women were the leaders of countries and were the historians, scientists and leaders of the world.  When a woman was pregnant, her family prayed for a girl, and if the baby was a boy, they were happy, but secretly prayed for the next to be a girl.  Now, this story is pretty whacky, but then Dave, another volunteer, addressed the girls and said that if we reverse the word boy with girl and vice versa, that seems pretty close to the world that we live in.  We don’t wait either world, but keep this story in mind for the rest of the day. 
The next segment included me introducing an on-going exercise called 2 Baskets.  I told the girls to imagine that they were moving from their old house into a new one and they had two baskets- one was a pile of trash to burn or get rid of and one was to bring to the new house.  The exercise was for the girls to write down ideas that they learned and wanted to take with them and ideas that they believed before, but wanted to leave behind.  We prearranged 2 volunteers to read theirs.  Many girls wrote down their ideas throughout the day and there were some awesome ones- girls can make their own decisions, my gender will not determine my occupation, women’s rights don’t only have an impact on women, etc. 

After this, Phanet, Darlene’s fantastic co-teacher, presented on self-esteem.  This is a huge issue with girls in every country.  The difference is that the girls are never really taught how to improve their self-esteem.  Phanet talked about how important it is to value yourself and love yourself.  She told the girls how she studied biology and wanted to teach future teachers about biology, everyone told her that no one would ever marry her and that she should teach high school instead.  She refused and loves her life (and her teacher trainees are much better suited because of that).  She talked about her insecurity with her skin tone because she is dark (Cambodians, like many Asians, want to have light skin and often times put skin bleaching cream on their bodies), she touched on how frequently people called her dark and how it wasn’t beautiful.  She told the girls that her beauty came from within herself, not from what others told her.  The small groups had break out sessions about improving their self-esteem and each group commented on how they need to love themselves first and foremost. 

Three of my students. 

We then put on a skit of a doctor and a farmer.  Both are men.  The farmer goes to the doctor and the doctor asks the farmer some questions about his family.  He asks the farmer about his wife, and if she has a job.  The farmer says, no, she doesn’t, she stays at home.  When the doctor asks the farmer to describe his wife’s typical day, the farmer talks for about 7 minutes about her daily tasks involving, but not restricted to, waking up at 4 am, cooking breakfast, getting water from the well, seeing the children off to school, cleaning the house, working in the fields, selling food in the market, making clothes, doing the laundry, cooking lunch, etc, you get the point.  After this long spiel about her never busy day, the doctor asks the man, “wait, I thought that you said your wife doesn’t work?” to which the farmer says, “yeah, that’s right, she stays at home…”  This was a segway into Navy, our Peace Corps doctor’s presentation.  She told the girls about her upbringing, which is just so inspiring.  She told them how her family was torn about when she was 13 and they were relocated to a different province.  They lost their land and many family members died.  She knew before the Cambodian genocide (Khmer Rouge) that she wanted to be a doctor, and that nothing would stop her.  She had to walk miles to get to school, and then she finally got a bike.  She used to sell vegetables in the market for literally pennies to try to support her studies.  Her teachers were lenient with her because she worked so hard (she often times didn’t have the money to pay the teachers, even when rice and food were accepted as payment).  She never formally studied English but studied on her own.  She bought books and had conversations with herself to practice.  Her mom told her that she was going crazy, but that didn’t stop her.  She continued to study, work and persue her dreams.  She got choked up at one point and many of the girls were crying as well; you could hear a pin drop in there.  She told them about how we must dream and come up with a plan for that dream; dreaming simply isn’t enough.  Taking care of our obligations on the road to our dreams is how we can succeed as women.  Her children then talked about their dreams.  Her daughter, Merica, talked about how she wanted to be a model, singer, but now her dream is to be the first female Prime Minister of Cambodia.  Her son talked about how he wants to play in the NBA, or if that fails, play soccer, and also become a doctor.  He was cute, because he told the girls (keep in mind, he is 13 and is just starting to feel awkward in these situations) that he encourages them to dream, because they can accomplish it, if they dream and work.  Navy’s husband, who is also a doctor and from Battambang province talked about being married to such a strong women and how decisions were made at home, how they communicate and each has input into decisions.  We did a combination break out session and question and answer session- the girls drew their dreams while others asked questions.  And that brought us to lunch.  

Sony as a lawyer 

We had every lunch order prearranged, so delivering the food to the small groups as a piece of cake.  I attribute that to the summer that I spent working for a catering company.  We had the fish/ chicken thing arranged beforehand, so it was all worked out for us.  That’s how it was at our event.  Lunch didn’t take too long, which was good, because we just dove back into the event.  Cambodians have a break from school and work from 11-1 and spend at lease 30 minutes of that napping, so we knew that we had a small window to get them back on their feet before they got too tired.  We got the girls back into their small groups and did the human knot, which is where each girl crosses her hands and grabs the hand of another girl, creating a confusing mix of hands in the middle and the group has to work together to become a circle again.  They really enjoyed it and I was in one of the groups and it was a blast.  They were all laughing and it boosted their energy, which was exactly what we needed.  We then had the health speaker make her presentation.  She mainly works at the Catholic Church doing workshops on women’s health, so she was perfect for this.  Because Cambodians never have sex ed in school, she was able to talk to the girls about those awkward things that they have perhaps encountered, but are too scared or shy to ask anyone, even mothers and sisters. We kicked all of the males out of the room to give the girls their privacy, which turned out to be very beneficial since the girls asked some very personal questions that they wouldn’t ever had if there were boys in the room. She was a straight-shooter, which is what is needed to make an impact.  She told the girls straight what they needed to know about their bodies and how to care for themselves.  She also talked about reproductive health, which is crucial since these young women are just about marrying age, if they aren’t already.   There was a health advocacy skit, which demonstrated the wrong way to address a doctor.  She then offered suggestions when you go to the doctor.  Theary had to leave right after to go back to Phnom Penh (we brought her out of maternity leave) and Navy took over for the break out session, which were 8 hypothetical questions.  The girls answered as a group, and I was so proud when all 4 of my grade students stood up to answer questions (my grade 10 students were a little more shy).  After completing that portion, we asked the girls to complete a questionnaire and gave them their prize, a notebook and took pictures.  I was talking to my girls when I was suddenly so overcome with emotion that I started to cry.  I brought 13 students that day- 9 grade 10 students who I don’t know so well and 4 grade 12 students who I have been teaching since day one, so I know them very well.  They were in my formal class last year, as well as two years of English Club.  I was telling them how proud of them I am, when I just started crying, obviously tears of joy. When I first met them, they were meek girls, but put that aside for 5 minutes to ask me to teach them extra. Since then, I have had the pleasure of teaching them during my free time, focusing on critical thinking.  Watching them over the course of almost two years, I have seen not only their English skills improve tenfold, but their confidence improve, to the point where there was such a heated discussion between a few of them, so heated that students made comments like “well, I think that you are wrong” and “I really disagree”.  In Cambodian terms, that’s the equivalent of calling someone dumb and their argument even dumber.  The girls just made me so proud because I know how big of a sacrifice they make to come to this stuff and how it’s so against their nature not to stand up and speak their mind.  There aren’t too man chances for a Peace Corps volunteer to see the fruits of his or her labor (if at all), so seeing them there was just overwhelming.  They also just reminded me how much I am really going to miss Cambodia.  There are a few people that really mean a lot to me and it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye, but I take solace in the women that they have grown to be.  It becomes clear very quickly while working in the developing world that progress is hard to make and it takes so long.  It just hit me then and there. 

Human Knot

University Students

NYHS students

Bringing it back to my softball days, I gave myself 4 big projects to do in my last 4 months- International Women’s Day, my kickball tournament, my health workshop and finding my grade 12 students scholarships.  One down, three to go.  IWD was very successful and to be honest, really enjoyable.  Last year it was a crazy day and was so stressful, this year, with a year and a half of experience under our belts, we were able to do it right and enjoy the day.  Next is the kickball tournament.  We had our first practice today.  The tournament will take place behind the abandoned train station.  There is a community of squatter families and children that will probably be evicted soon.  The school nearby is trying to offer the children an option to stay out of trouble, so I thought that a kickball tournament would be a good option on their only day off of school, which is Sunday.  I was nervous that kids wouldn’t show up, but that wasn’t an issue.  Each team had about 20 kids that could play, not including their baby brother or sister that their parents made take with them.  Many of the parents came to watch as well.  We will have another practice next Sunday and then the big game is on Sunday, March 27th, and I am confident that attendance will be sky-high by then.   My coach from Seton Hall donated 20 t-shirts and Darlene asked University of Texas to donated 20 t-shirts, so the game will be UT vs. SHU.  It should be really fun.  The rules are very rudimentary but the reason for the game is to have a community activity, not to find Battambang’s deadliest kickball player.  I chose kickball because all you need is a ball and a bunch of little kids.  We will have a kickball game and other options for younger children (maybe Bozo buckets?)  My grade 12 students were the coaches and they had a blast and got into it.  They are such great role models and these children are so vulnerable that it sends a great message to the community that there are people who still care about their children’s wellbeing. 

After the kickball tournament, we will most likely start our health workshop.  Maybe we can play a little kickball then learn about hand washing.  The health workshop will be in the same community, because they really need it.  These families are living in the vacant box cars, offices and really anywhere providing any shelter.  The children are very dirty because they spend most of their time outside and are really susceptible to diarrhea and other potentially dangerous ailments.  Again, my grade 12 students will be leading this.  This will be great for their resumes and also leads into the last project.  This school offers scholarships, so a few of my students will be able to get scholarships.  I told them that in order to apply for the scholarships, my students must volunteer two hours per week for two months (this is not the case, but I believe that they should give something to this community in exchange).  They are also really enjoying these projects. 

These 3 remaining projects are ones that I am really interested in for obvious reasons- I miss playing sports, the children need instruction in regards to basic hygiene and I want my students to go on to university.  All Peace Corps volunteers agree that they cannot change the country, the change must come from within the country.  We don’t have the means to change the higher ups, but rather the youth that may one day be in that position.  The impact is really small that we actually end up making, but that doesn’t make it any less important.  I am just figuring this out, and right on time, too.    

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Power of Women.

 With the approaching International Women’s Day project, I have been thinking a lot recently about how innate female strength is.  As Americans, we see it all the time in many forms, most notably in famous females, such as Oprah Winfrey, Aung San Suu Kyi, Condoleeza Rice (even though I disagree with her politics) and the list goes on and on.  But the ones that are most impressive are the women who demonstrate these qualities everyday, but never receive an award, recognition or even a thanks sometimes.  I was raised around strong women- my mother, my grandmother, sisters, aunts, friends, teammates, cousins, teachers, etc.  But looking back on my life, there are so many others that get overlooked.  A single mother who studies at night to earn a degree.  Women who defy the odds and take on jobs that are male-dominated, even though they face sexism.  An immigrant who works two jobs and can’t speak English just to give her kids a better life than she had.

Cambodia is a place, like many developing countries, where females do not have the same opportunities, but their strength shines through.  The top students in my classes are girls- they are the hardest working and moreover the bravest, which speaks to their character, since girls are taught to be “sopheap” which manes gentle.  I see women wake up at the crack of dawn and start cooking their food and load up their carts to lug all over town, in the hopes of making a few bucks for working from sunrise to sunset. 

Two very personal examples are right in my family.  The first is my host aunt.  She is called “ma yay” which means that she is the oldest of the grandmothers (in America we typically only refer to our parents’ parents as grandma and grandpa, but here, grandma and grandpa’s siblings are all considered grandma and grandpa too).  She is very well respected because she is the oldest, but I respect her for so much more.  When I first met her, I noticed that she had a face full of history.  Some people wear their emotions right on their face, but I could tell immediately that she had a tough history.  I soon found out that she lost all 5 of her children and her husband during the Khmer Rouge.  Everyone.  It’s very common (90% of all people over the age of 30 lost an immediate family member) but that doesn’t make it any easier.  Because so many people went through such an awful time, who is there to talk about it with?  Cambodians typically keep their burdens on themselves, much of the reason is because of Buddhist practices and accepting one’s fate as karma.  Regardless, although I don’t know the details of their deaths, losing one’s entire family is simply devastating, very few people can understand.  What gives me so much inspiration is that although she has this weight that, she has defied the odds and lived her own life, which is incredibly difficult as an uneducated woman after the country was torn apart for 4 years by genocide.  Without any infrastructure, her younger brother’s family accepted her into the home and she loved her nieces and nephews as her own.  She always seems to be looking out for me (they live in the center of town and I frequently see them and she always checks up on what I’m doing and where I’m going).  This year she turned 79 and keeps plugging on.  She’s very active, I often see her walking too and from the market.  She lives life to the fullest and has a great sense of humor.  She won’t get any awards for her life, but I will never forget her because when I think that times are tough and can’t get through, I’ll remember her and know that I can.
Ma Yay with my host mom at my host mom's birthday
Ma yay at her 79

The other woman who has shown her strength is my oldest host sister, SoKaeng.  Last week, her son passed away.  He was 7 and severely disabled.  He couldn’t walk or speak and her devotion to him was incredible.  He had the mobility of a baby and needed constant supervision.  She runs a business near the market that funds her daughter’s education.  Li Ching, her daughter, is 16 and lives in Phnom Penh.  I came home from school last week and Hun (my host brother formerly known as Huck, more on that later) told me that Chran was in the hospital.  He passed away that night.  Cambodians typically mourn for 7 days (3 of those days are ceremonies and a funeral), but either because he was so little or because of his disability, we spent the next day at the pagoda.  I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in his funeral and the ones that I had been to.  My host mom, host sister and her husband spent the night at the pagoda with Chran’s body after he passed away, which is what my dad and uncles did after my aunt passed away.  During the ceremony at the pagoda, his little body was dressed in his favorite clothes, blessed with incense and water and put into a casket.  He was buried, as the Chinese do, and the family threw dirt onto his grave.  The procession to the gravesite felt the same as the others that I had been in.  There are differences, but everyone seemed to take comfort in the ceremony.  What stood out to me was how incredibly strong my host sister is.  She was taking care of her nieces and nephews when they cried or needed something.  I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but she was looking out for me as well, as she always does.  At weddings and parties she always seems to pick up on the fact that I feel weird and will give me food (sometimes the good food is on the opposite side of the table and I can’t really move in my wedding clothes).  I found out later that this was her 4th child that passed away and only one daughter is alive.  The three other children that I didn’t know all had disabilities and some died very young and some survived a few years.  She always seems to put everyone before herself, which is what a mom always does, but even to people who aren’t her children- me topping that list.  Her strength comes from helping people and making them comfortable, which is what some people see as a weakness.  She has really taught me above being selfless for the sake of others.  I count myself very lucky to be one of those people that she looks out for. 

My host sister and her son

As for the program, planning is coming along very well but the countdown is on.  As I write this, we have 8 days until the program.  We’re solidifying the content of the program this weekend and giving it to our counterpart at the university to be translated.  Then comes the tedious stuff- lunch orders, groups, preparing the group leaders, water, room set up- but those things always seem to come together.  It’s been tough because we all have different obligations so coordination is coming down to the wire now.  But I had an experience that reaffirms exactly why we need to be doing this. 

I believe in signs- whether they are divine or not, I believe that they appear and we have to look out for them or else we will miss them.  Some are blaring, some are subtle.  This one was blaring.  Here’s what happened:
Each volunteer can bring 10 high school girls to our event.  I asked my grade 12 English Club girls to come and told my two grade 10 classes that I would chose 6 girls total (3 from each class) based on an essay contest.  I announced it in class and the boys were all incredibly jealous (this is the first time in their lives where they have to take a back seat).  Knowing my students, I had a feeling about who would submit and who wouldn’t, but there were some surprises.  I was so proud of a few timid ones who clearly had worked up the courage to write AND submit the essays.  It may not seem like a big deal to Americans, but it is a really big step for them.  In total, I got 9 essays from both classes which doesn’t seem like a lot, but there are only 30 kids coming to class these days and very few are girls.  Well, this incident happened yesterday during class.  We were finishing up class but had about 10 minutes before the bell and one girl handed a piece of paper to my co-teacher (my students are all really scared of me because I’m strict and really tall to them). I walked over to take it because I assumed that it was for my essay contest but the problem is that I can’t read Khmer and I told the girls that they could write in Khmer to feel more comfortable, and I would have my English Club girls read and translate them, so they would double as judges.  I put my hand out and he said that he was confused about something and I asked if it was for my essay contest and he said that it wasn’t.  So, then I was embarrassed and sat down.  Remember, there are a lot of things that happen in my classroom that I don’t know about, not do I want to.  Teachers hold private classes, sometimes accept money for tests or bribes and other things that I have no power against and my hands are tied, so it’s better not even to know.  He assigned them an essay a few weeks ago, so I assumed that it was another stupid essay that he assigned.  The girl was saying, “No teacher, don’t” and the other kids, especially the boys, were urging him to read it.  So he starts reading and the girl is MORTIFIED and the students, especially the boys, are laughing and hooting.  Then he reads the line “women are the same as men” and I knew that he lied and that she was submitting it for my project.  I was so angry that I walked over to him, grabbed it out of his hands and walked out of the room, saying that class was over.  I probably looked like the meanest person in the world, but I could not believe that was happening in a classroom.  First, that I would run this program and ask for his help to help the girls of his country and province, and he clearly doesn’t support it. Second, that this girl would work up the courage to write her essay and put herself out there, then for a TEACHER (who should be encouraging education and programs such as this) to humiliate a student like this in front of the other students.  I understand why the students were into it- the boys felt slighted that they weren’t invited (that’s the point, it’s a special day only for girls) and the other girls are girls.  I was a high school girl myself and got caught up in things like that.  But he is in a position of power.  I decided on the spot that this would be the best women’s day event Cambodia, no, the world, has ever seen.  I went home and came up with some really great ideas and also decided that I’m not turning away any of the girls that submitted an essay- the last thing that they need is to put themselves out there only to vet rejected.  I’ll pay the extra money myself.  So, I will be bringing 13 girls, as of now.  If more girls submit, they will be invited too. 

My initial reaction was to not teach the next day and yell at him.  But then I realized that this is reaffirmation that this is what needs to be done.  These are the things that are happening in my own classroom, in front of other people and a foreigner.  What’s happening behind closed doors?  It’s easy to be negative and angry.  It’s harder to turn it positive and take action.  I chose the harder route and went to school this morning and took control of the class and taught my section with a smile on my face and really enjoyed the lesson for the first time in a while (teaching has taken it’s toll on me).  The only exchange between my co-teacher and myself was when I told him to teach the grammar section.  After class, I went back home and did a little more work on the program.

I want to be clear on something though- I don’t hate my co-teacher; I’m not even mad at him.  He’s just a representation of gender problems in the developing world.  He is a product of a flawed system and his mindset is one that is very popular all over the world, even in our country.  I know that I vilified him in this blog, but it’s not him, it’s just his backward ideas about gender. How many Americans feel superior to people from other countries?  I know because he has tried to make me feel inferior a few times, but I haven’t let it bother me.  But Cambodian girls are raised in it, I wasn’t.  I hope to do my part in reversing that, because it’s clear that there is a pressing need for it. 

In family news- my host sister is engaged.  I came home yesterday and she was engaged.  She wasn’t when I left for school, but her fiancĂ© came over and they had a short ceremony.  They went to the fortune teller and the date has been set- April 9.  Which could potentially be the hottest day of the year.  April is the hottest month and weddings are so miserable then.  It’s miserable to do just about anything- leave the house, do laundry.  Classes aren’t in session because it’s too hot to teach and learn.  People shower 4 times a day at least then and then immediately start sweating again.  No one is ever dry in April.  Because of this, most volunteers leave Cambodia.  So those two tables that my family was hoping to fill with my volunteer buddies will be sadly vacant; everyone will be in another country, except for me, sweating bullets in a Khmer dress with make-up caked on.  It should be fun though. 

My host brother went to the fortune teller (he goes two times a day to get traditional medical practices for his arthritis) and she told him that he may have more power if he changes his name.  And she suggested changing his name from Huck, the nickname his father gave him after the Chinese word for a small mountain, to Hun, after the Prime Minister, Hun Sen.  It was confusing at first and everyone kept slipping up and calling him Huck, especially the little kids.  But now everyone has made the change, but I feel weird because his new name is the same as the American pet name, hon (short for honey).  So I feel like a creep every time I come home and greet my host brother as “Hi Hun, how are you?” almost like we are a married couple.  They have no idea, but I am getting used to it.  I know that when I am married, Hun will NOT be a pet name used in the relationship. 

Hope all is well back home.  We are quickly approaching the “4 months until I come home” mark, which is exciting.  March is choc-full of programs and teaching.  But after my sister gets married, there will be very little happening besides trying to find scholarships for my grade 12 students.